By most accounts, 2020 was not a good year for publishers’ sales representatives. One longtime commission rep commented, “I have had the most disastrous sales of my career”—and he’s not alone.

Maureen Karb, head of Como Sales, which covers the Eastern seaboard, was at a sales conference in New York City in the days leading up to Mar. 11, 2020, when the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. She said that after she returned home, she had to contact the publishers she just met with and ask them to stop shipping to her stores.

Lise Solomon at Karel/Dutton, who sells to stores in Northern California and Washington State, recalled that on her last day on the road in March, she gave a reps pick presentation. The next day she came home and began undoing all the orders she had just taken, as well as those from January and February.

But with the number of vaccinations up and schools and businesses beginning to reopen in much of the country, reps are optimistic about the future. At Chesapeake & Hudson, which covers the Mid-Atlantic and New England, president Janine Jensen said that after making cuts last year, including closing the company’s Maryland office, the firm is “poised for growth.” She added, “We’ll be making an announcement very shortly that we’ll be adding reps.”

To find out what being a rep has been like over the past year, and what changes they want to keep when the pandemic ends, PW spoke with reps from several groups and one distributor.

Going off-road

Cindy Heidemann, field sales rep for Ingram Publisher Services’ Publishers Group West and Two Rivers units, said that after lockdowns began last spring, “all reps turned into customer service people. Each store was an individual case. You had to talk to every account about what they wanted to do.”

Heidemann found that most stores that didn’t initially cancel their orders did so eventually. By June, though, booksellers were ready to order for fall. The uncertainty led stores to skip titles and order far fewer than they had in the past. This spring, Heidemann said, some of her larger accounts, such as Powell’s, are inching back toward pre-pandemic numbers.

At the same time, Heidemann has found her relationship with Ingram’s client lines changing. “Since all the reps are working from home, we’re closer to our publishers,” she said. “Before, at sales conferences, you might be sitting on the sidelines, far away. Now you see everybody’s face on Zoom.” This new closeness has opened up conversations between her and client publishers about how to optimize Edelweiss and how to work more effectively with Ingram.

“It’s quite remarkable,” said Elise Cannon, v-p of field sales at Ingram Content Group and PGW, who has observed the same thing among reps in other parts of the country. “They call on more accounts than ever, but lack of physical travel gives them a bit more capacity to spend time face-to-face with our publishers. I don’t even call them ‘reps’ anymore. I call them ‘territory managers.’ ”

Being home all the time has been one of the biggest changes for some reps. “I had to adapt,” said John Mesjak, principal at Abraham Associates, whose territory includes his home base in Minneapolis, as well as Chicago and parts of Iowa, Kentucky, and Wisconsin. He had to adjust to two new feline colleagues and find space for the materials he usually filed in the trunk of his car, and he feels isolated from frontline booksellers.

“I really need to get back out into stores,” said Mesjak, who also misses in-person meetings with others in his rep group and in-person rep nights. Though he participated in Consortium’s pre-recorded rep picks for Winter Institute, he said, “It’s not the same if you can’t have a drink afterward.”

Mesjak plans to counter that sense of isolation with a “good will tour” to some of his accounts this summer. He anticipates selling the fall season remotely.

Keeping it personal

Travel may be curtailed, but a few reps continue to make at least occasional in-person visits. “I definitely stay in state,” said Karb, who went to Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass., in mid-March for a signing with Kaitlyn Greenidge (Libertie) for the store’s First Edition Club. She also called on TidePool Bookshop in Worcester, where she sat at the cash wrap with a piece of plexiglass between her and the buyer. But most of her appointments continue to be by phone, which, on the plus side, has enabled Como to save on travel expenses.

On the West Coast, reps are also seeing some accounts in person. “I’ve hand delivered kids’ f&g’s where I can, and I’ve done some appointments on back patios like at Reader’s Books in Sonoma,” Solomon said. “It’s delightful to see people in 3-D.” But she’s also enjoyed catching up with booksellers on Zoom—particularly those in Alaska and Hawaii, with whom she communicated by email pre-Covid. “It’s nice to see people where they’re sitting,” she added. “It’s nice to engage.” On the other hand, she finds sales conferences via Zoom exhausting.

One unexpected benefit of being home for reps is that they’re better able to stay in touch with colleagues. Solomon said that her fellow reps at Karel/Dutton are in contact much more often now. “We have pretty much weekly meetings via Zoom.”

The same is true at Ingram, which moved its monthly field call to a weekly one and invited field reps to all standing weekly sales meetings and hot titles meetings. “Everyone really wanted to feel more connected,” Cannon said.

Looking to a hybrid future

Like a number of reps, Jensen lost orders to Ingram at the height of the pandemic, because it was easier for her accounts to get one combined box from the wholesaler—especially when many stores had been forced to lay off staff. But she’s also found new outlets for her titles, and not necessarily in the expected places. During Covid, one of her children’s bookstores added computer manuals for a customer who lives down the street.

“We can’t pigeonhole customers into discreet categories,” Jensen said. “We have to turn over every rock and help stores survive.”

Similarly, Conor Broughan, who is based in Orono, Maine, and is Northeast sales rep for Columbia University Press Sales Consortium, has learned that some of his stores have gained customers from a different demographic base during lockdown. One store in Halifax, Canada, found out when it reopened that a number of its web orders came from women in their 20s who wanted to support the store. It is now ordering with them in mind. Broughan said he also received orders for academic titles on social justice issues from stores that hadn’t ordered from him before.

Thanks to the efficiencies of phone and Zoom appointments, Broughan has had time to reach out to accounts he might not have visited in the past. In the future, he anticipates adopting a hybrid schedule that combines in-person and phone and Zoom visits, so he can continue to meet with more types of stores.

Even if the way that reps do their work has changed during the pandemic, Mesjak pointed out, their mission has stayed the same: to serve as intermediaries between publishers and booksellers.